In Bend’s burgeoning dining world, one constant has been Zydeco Kitchen & Cocktails. Since 2009, when owners Steve and Cheri Helt relocated to downtown Bend from Third Street, the fine-dining restaurant has been a model of consistency.
To say Zydeco has been perfect would be a misstatement. Every restaurant stumbles occasionally, and over the years, I’ve had occasion to tell Steve Helt — who serves as executive chef, as well as co-owner — about problems with food preparation and service shortcomings. But those have been so rare, they might be regarded as mere anomalies.
The complaint I’ve most often heard voiced about Zydeco relates to a static menu. “The food is great, but I wish there was more variety,” one friend opined.
Now, change is coming. “If you’re not nimble, you get passed by,” Helt conceded. “We want to have new and exciting things, above and beyond the core menu.”
Signature dishes like barbecue shrimp over Southern grit cake, blackened redfish with Dungeness crab, and filet au poivre (peppercorn steak) with brandy cream sauce aren’t going anywhere.
“A lot of people come back year after year for the same things,” Helt said.
But the core menu is shrinking, in favor of an expanding list of specials that highlight seafood and other seasonal features. A special this week is beef bourguignon with homemade gnocchi, hinting at ventures into traditional French cooking. Soon to come is crab-stuffed mahi mahi topped with lobster beurre blanc, prepared tableside. With the introduction of a new menu in April, the owner said, “We’ll do a lot of styles of cuisine, including Moroccan and Indian.”
Tried and true
My dining companion and I find it hard to dine at Zydeco without visiting a couple of its tried-and-true offerings, as prepared by longtime chef de cuisine Mary Diehl and her staff.
The barbecue shrimp appetizer ($14) is, quite likely, the best starter in town. A half-dozen plump shrimp are sauteed tail-on in a buttery sauce spiced with cayenne. They are sprinkled with parsley and served atop a Southern grit cake, keeping this dish gluten-free. On our last visit, however, we found the grit cake to be thinner than we had recalled.
Another Zydeco classic is the redfish ($27). This delectable ocean fish, related to snapper and perch, is grilled, topped with a rich house sauce and served with crab meat. I always order it “blackened” — coated with cayenne, paprika and garlic powder before grilling. The peppery flavor may not be for everyone, but I find that the presentation on a bed of mashed potatoes with sauteed spinach cuts some of the heat.
For her entree, my companion chose the roasted duck breast ($29). Subtly seasoned, cooked with skin and fat to lock in moisture, the savory poultry was topped with a creamy sauce of thick sliced porcini mushrooms that accented the bird’s flavor. It’s normally served with cavatappi (corkscrew) pasta, but because my friend is limiting her carbohydrate intake, the kitchen substituted a second green vegetable: She enjoyed both green beans and sauteed spinach.
Between our shared starter and entrees, we split an original salad of mixed greens ($9). The lettuces and frisee were as fresh as could be. Rustic croutons were made in-house, and crumbled goat cheese was a fine addition. But toasted hazelnuts were too finely crushed, and dried pears, finely diced, were a mediocre replacement for the sliced fresh pears we wished had been served instead. Sometimes, you just can’t get what you want in winter.
We could, however, get Diehl’s frosted carrot cake, one of most unforgettable desserts in Bend. We even took home a second piece for later. And we also escaped with a small bag of “Lady’s homemade dog biscuits,” free for canine companions. After all, Zydeco was named for a family dog when it was launched in Bend in 2004.
One of the pleasures of dining at Zydeco is in the high level of service. New hires, said Steve Helt, must have a minimum of two years’ fine-dining experience before they’ll even be considered for the restaurant’s own training program. And even for long-time employees, training and development is ongoing. The result is an efficient and cordial staff that seems to truly want to create the best possible dining experience for patrons.
“We continue to look at the system, and how we can make it better and more seamless for the guests,” Helt said. A new management team, headed by general manager Jerry Michaelson, is in place. And since Zydeco added an online, in-house reservation system, Helt said, “We probably get an average of three or four customer feedbacks every single day. We call them all back and thank them for taking the time to make us better.”
Atmosphere hasn’t changed substantially in 10 years. Subtle acoustical changes, including new carpeting, are in the works. The restaurant is partitioned into three equal sections, with an open window to the kitchen in a central dining room and a cocktail lounge to the right.
Zydeco will be expanding its cocktail menu, as well as rewriting the food menu, Helt said: “But we want to be known as a food restaurant that has great cocktails to go along with dinner.”
— John Gottberg Anderson can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org